Newt Gingrich and Trayvon Martin: Is it OK to identify with Christians but not blacks?

Why Is It OK To Identify With Christians but Not Blacks?

Why Is It OK To Identify With Christians but Not Blacks?

How you look at things.
March 26 2012 12:19 PM

My Favorite Martin

Gingrich says it’s wrong to identify with victimized blacks. But it’s fine to identify with victimized Christians.

Republican presidential candidate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich in Pennsylvania on March 24.

Photograph by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Newt Gingrich says it’s disgraceful of President Obama to express a feeling of kinship with Trayvon Martin. It’s wrong, according to Gingrich, because it divides Americans into groups and implies that Obama would be less sympathetic to a white victim. An argument for impartiality in the Martin case can legitimately be made. But it can’t be made by Gingrich, because he’s an enthusiastic practitioner of identity politics. It’s just that the victim group with whom he chooses to identify is Christians, not blacks.

Martin, a young, unarmed black man in Florida, was shot to death four weeks ago while walking home by a crime-watch volunteer who claimed, in the face of contrary evidence, that he had had reason to fear for his life. On Friday, Obama was asked about the case and “allegations of lingering racism within our society.” He replied:

When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together—federal, state, and local—to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened. … But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. 

Gingrich, speaking on Sean Hannity’s radio show a day later, condemned Obama’s remarks:

What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful. It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background. Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense dividing this country up.

So Gingrich is against dividing us into groups and identifying with victims who belong to one group. Right?

Wrong. Watch Gingrich’s performance at a town hall meeting in South Carolina on Jan. 17. A man in the audience tells him that 60 percent of South Carolinians are evangelical Christians. The man asks: “Would you, as Newt Gingrich, support a Muslim-American running for president?  Would you endorse at one point in the future … that a Muslim-American could possibly be running for president?” Gingrich replies, “It would depend entirely on whether they would commit in public to give up Sharia.” He explains:

If they’re the Saudis, who demand that we respect them, while they refuse to allow either a Jew or a Christian to worship in Saudi Arabia, that’s something different. And I think we need a president who stands up, tells the truth, and rejects any kind of effort to impose on us a sense of guilt because we believe in our religion and we’re prepared to tell the truth.

Note the we/them/us/they/our language, culminating in the Christianist slip, “our religion.” A week later, Gingrich goes on the Salem Radio Network, a self-described alliance of “Christian-formatted” affiliates, and is asked about radical Islamists. He answers:

From my perspective, you don't have an issue of religious tolerance. You have an elite which favors radical Islam over Christianity and Judaism. You have constant pressure by secular judges and by religious bigots to drive Christianity out of public life and to establish a secular state—except when it comes to radical Islam, where all of a sudden they start making excuses for Sharia, they start making excuses that we really shouldn't use certain language.

The key shift here is the segue from foreign to domestic matters. When Gingrich talks about judges imposing a secular state, he’s not talking about Saudi Arabia. He’s talking about the United States. He’s telling Christian listeners that the government is persecuting them while favoring Muslims.